By Agather Atuhaire
Scholars warn of more protests if dialogue does not replace repression of opposition
As hard economic times bite and it looks like President Yoweri Museveni has decided to become more repressive instead of trying to democratise a hungry nation, agitation is increasing for national dialogue.
That is the verdict of several scholars who spoke to The Independent in our continuing series about the President’s options for a peaceful transition of power.
Joe Oloka Onyango, a professor at the Makerere University School of law says dialogue today is imperative if the country is to escape the social, political and economic problems it is facing.
“These levels of repression are not sustainable in the medium and longer term,” Onyango told The Independent.
Onyango who is part of the national convention that is advocating for a genuine and unrestricted dialogue among the diverse peoples of Uganda says repression tactics will backfire.
“Repression as a mechanism has a definite shelf life,” he says.
A political analyst and researcher from Makerere University, Dr Fredrick Golooba-Mutebi says brutal tactics will not stop until the government agrees to opt for dialogue and engagement.
He says the government might be reacting brutally to political dissenters, especially the Walk-to-Work protesters, because it is the only way it knows to deal with protests as a form of political expression.
“They have only the option of brutality as dialogue is not yet on the cards,” he says.
But a leading human rights activist, Livingstone Sewanyana, of the NGO, Foundation for Human Rights Initiative told The Independent that it might be difficult to reach the dialogue stage.
“Whatever measures the opposition devises, the state looks at them suspiciously which is why dialogue might not be possible,” he says.
“There is a competition of interests because the opposition wants to use the current economic situation as an opportunity to fault government,” Sewanyana says.
Sewanyana says the population might continue to suffer if a solution is not reached in the short run as the state will use the scarce resources on suppressing demonstrations.
This, Sewanyanna says, might create a more grave political instability and institutional break down as rights are undermined and justice denied.
Advocates coalition for development and environment (ACODE) director Godber Tumushabe says president Museveni has failed to adjust into the current context something that has critical implications.
“He has failed to recognize that many Ugandans are aggrieved by the dire economic situation and has held on to political patronage,” he says
He says the sooner government realises it cannot suppress all the various types of dissenters when the issues they are protesting against are still existing and probably increasing, the better.
“Repression finally explodes,” Tumushabe told The Independent.
Besigye who leads the biggest opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) has borne the worst of the government brutal attack on opposition politicians. In April brutally arrested in an incident that shocked the world. Since then he has routinely been manhandled by security personnel and prevented from leaving his house.
Charges of treason have been slapped on three opposition members who were recently arrested during the second phase of Walk to Work (W2W) protests.
Ingrid Turinawe, the FDC Women League leader, and Besigye’s aide Sam Mugumya and an FDC youth leader, Francis Mwijukye, have been denied bail and are remanded in Luzira.
These are the most prominent cases but many Ugandans have been arbitrarily kept in detention according to the latest Amnesty International report on Uganda.
Protest assemblies blocked
When the Activists for Change (A4C) informed police in September about the rally they intended to hold at Clock Tower, permission was refused under the pretext that the area is at a busy route to the city centre and a rally there would disrupt business.
The police advised them to go to the Kololo Grounds. But when they attempted to assemble at Kololo Grounds weeks later, the police boss, IGP Kale Kayihura gave all sorts of excuses and later told them to write to the President’s Office for permission. They wrote but permission was denied, even though Kololo is a public ground. In effect, the security forces have completely denied the opposition the right to assemble.
In another move, the government has tabled before Parliament a Bill designed to further restrict opposition activity.
The Public Order Management Bill provides that any proposed public meeting must be notified to the police at least seven days in advance. It also seeks to prohibit any gathering of three or more persons in a road or other public outdoor place… “for the purpose of discussing, demonstrating about or protesting about policies or actions of government or governmental institutions”.
The Bill proposes restricting the permissible hours for such meetings to after 6am and before 6pm and that a public address or amplification system can only be used with police permission.
Besigye says one of the core demands of the FDC is have a national dialogue that can engender the national consensus of everybody, that is all involving and that deals with all contentious transitional issues.
He says the transitional process should involve revisiting the constitution on issues of land, local regional governance, and the electoral system.
“We believe there cannot be a 2016 (elections) without some fundamental changes,” he says.
He says a national dialogue requires a mechanism that enjoys the confidence of everybody.
“Museveni is part of that controversy, he can be part of the solution, he should be part of the solution but under a different construct not where he is the supervisor,” Besigye says.
Besigye, who has contested and lost the presidency to him three times, says “People who think that Museveni has a succession plan do not know what they are talking about”.
“The only succession plan Museveni has is of himself. He can only replace himself with himself not even his son.
“Museveni is about himself and nothing. Of course I suspect that as a plan B for some reason that he became unable to hang onto power, he would want it to stay as close to him as possible. My understanding of Museveni’s mentality is that he cannot imagine himself existing outside power as a humble citizen of our country paying taxes, attending village meetings in Rwakitura. I think he would be working hard to make sure that it does not happen,” Besigye told The Independent in an interview.
Addressing journalists at his country home at the height of the first Walk to Work protests on April 16, Museveni ruled out talks with the opposition, especially FDC President Kizza Besigye.
“Now Besigye says he is going to demonstrate against inflation? Will the world prices go down because Besigye has demonstrated? We are going to deal with him; there will be no demonstration in Kampala,” Museveni charged.
Professor Jean Barya of Makerere University warns that there is a possibility of more and critical conflicts due to the deteriorating economic situation and lack of government will to democratically address it.
“If freedom is not granted and people continue feeling that resources like oil are not benefitting them, there is a likelihood of a more critical civil or political conflict,” he says.
Golooba agrees. He says if repression becomes the sole approach to popular dissent, there could be a progressive breakdown in law and order which might in turn force the government to become more repressive.
“That could build up pressure which may explode into something more destabilising, possibly civil strife,” the researcher told The Independent.
According to Golooba, Uganda is witnessing this kind of suppression because government has not considered the other approach which would be talking to the opposition and other forces. He says the government’s is rejection of dialogue with opponents has animated political the discontent.
“The president has always held the opposition in contempt and has several times referred to them as enemies rather than mere competitors in the political arena,” he told The Independent. According to him, demonisation of the opposition grants Museveni and the police justification to brutalise them.
Barya thinks government has not opted for more appropriate means like dialogue even after witnessing what the use of force can lead to in the North African countries because the president believes he has the support of the western countries, particularly USA.
“The president is probably not worried of the NATO forces helping his dissenters to fight him,” said the Makerere university professor.
The US support however might not be guaranteed as its government has also allegedly condemned the excessive use of force in Uganda and the violations of freedoms of expression, assembly and the media.
Barya also says the insufficient organisation both political and civil of his dissenters makes him underestimate them and think that the situation cannot go beyond what he can contain.
“The discovery of oil also tends to make the president think he will have enough support from the west and will get a hand in keeping the rebellious parties at a bay,” says Barya.
The leader of the Peoples Progressive Party, Mzee Bidandi Ssali, a former Museveni confidante, says if Uganda does not adopt new approaches to leadership, the government should expect more resistance from not only the opposition but all the aggrieved Ugandans.
“And change of the regime might not provide a solution but change of the whole system will,” Bidandi says.
Golooba says although the current repression is seen by many as new, “President Museveni has never had any respect for the broad opposition”.
“If this government had ever respected the freedom of expression, it would not have banned adverts in The Monitor newspaper in the 1990s for being critical of government or instituted the charges it has leveled on several journalists on all sorts of grounds.”
“Between 1986 and 2005 there was a growing tendency to harass members of other political organisations and preventing them from holding public meetings,” Golooba says. He says this shows that the violation of peaceful assembly has been there as long as the NRM government has.
Barya agrees that what is happening today is no different from what has happened since President Museveni took power in 1986.
“The NRM government has never accepted political pluralism although it accepted it on paper in the 2000 referendum,” Barya told The Independent adding that the structure of one-party system has always been in place.
Citing institutions like the Electoral Commission, Police, army, and other security institutions and the local government system which never changed, Barya says Uganda is no different from a one-party state.
Onyango concurs that even in the single party days there was a clamp down on freedom of association as the media and other forms of expression were always on tenterhooks
However all political observers agree that the repression is currently more rampant and more open than it was before. Oloka Onyango says the only difference is that the current repression is more sophisticated in its methods than the previous one.